"The first time I heard Earl on the radio, I couldn’t tell if it was a banjo or electric guitar or if it was lightning bolts from heaven."

- John Hartford

RIP Earl Scruggs

Wondering how to pronounce Gotye? So was I.

Music Monday: “Mary” by Kings of Leon

I think our Southern rockers have finally found the sweet spot. On this fourth track of their latest album, Come Around Sundown, they jolt you awake with a head bobbing lip curler.

It opens like a floodgate with a bassy four-note slide, raw strumming, slow-pound drums and falsetto backings, joined a few seconds later by pleading, wailing vocals. For the chorus, the riffing goes staccato, another guitar bounces from downbeat to downbeat, the sticks beat the rhythm to a pulp and the singing croons with every last note — until every sound drops away except the breathy, monosyllabic breaks of “ie-ie-ieuh-ieie…”

This cycle repeats itself before you even know it, until a blazing electric breaks out from the rest on what couldn’t be a more fitting direction for the jam: a good ole fashioned, straining, waining guitar solo! Thank you, kindly.

The cacophony of caged-up release builds with the last chorus to an heightened state of frenzy before it all falls away again, leaving the last breath hanging in the ether.

Yes, kids this song is the perfect blend of the Kings early dirty South punk sound and their more recent polished, slick, stadium anthems. I know, it’s only rock’n’roll, but I like it.

Music Monday: “Junky Star” by Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses

As most singer/songwriters do, Ryan Bingham is evolving from simply describing a feeling in each song to telling a narrative story. In this title track from his recently released third album, he uses a slow-picked, stripped down effect to let the troubling story take center stage. Sure it’s depressing, but such a sad tale couldn’t be more relevant in these times.

In fact, the whole album stresses the Depression we’re living through from the perspective of a man who leaves it all behind in hopes of finding a new beginning in the Golden State. It makes for a concept album that’s not as rocking and fun as Bingham’s previous two albums, but it’s the best songwriting he’s ever done. And when was the last time you heard a country concept album anyway? 

No doubt plenty of credit goes to producer T Bone Burnett, whom Bingham first partnered with to write songs for the soundtrack to Crazy Heart. That project won the two a Golden Globe for Best Original Song for "The Weary Kind," which is the closer on Junky Star.

I had the pleasure of seeing Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses at their ACL aftershow last Friday night at Momo’s in Austin. They played about half the songs off the new album, but mainly stuck to rocking jams from all three of their releases to date. I’m not sure why, but the crowd wasn’t near as rambunctious as I expected (especially compared to the boot-stomping riot that was Bingham’s 2009 album release concert at Gruene Hall — second best show I’ve ever seen). Most were probably tired from spending the day at ACL. I, however, still proceeded to dance my sweaty ass off. So if you get a chance to see these guys, go.

I also discovered a phenomenal Austin bluesman in Bingham’s opener, Gary Clark Jr. I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this guy before, but he slow-jammed our socks off. He’s Jimi Hendrix times Stevie Ray Vaughn. I’m sure I’ll post about him soon as I continue to discover his music.

In the meantime, listen to the sad song that is “Junky Star” and be thankful for all you’ve got in this Depression.

Tunes Tuesday (since I missed Music Monday yesterday): “Manhattan” by Kings of Leon

I know they just won three Grammys for “Use Somebody,” but Manhattan remains my favorite from Only By The Night.

All the elements—the opening guitar hook, the piercing lead guitar, the sliding bass, the lively drums, the staccato vocals and picking—create a woozy feeling that’s at once both jumpy and smooth. Like waves crashing against a boat: individually they slap out of time, but as a whole they ebb and flow fluidly. And the bridge breaks it all down to a bare-bones epileptic fit of downbeats, driving home the awkwardly addicting feel of this jam.

Congratulations on the Grammys, Kings. Well-deserved and ‘bout time. Now it’s time to drink the wine and pass the cup.

Music Monday: “Home” by Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros

Duets don’t get any sappier and happier than this folk/gospel jam. It sounds like Johnny and June Cash times Sonny and Cher times The Mamas and the Papas.

It’s full of the lonely, signature sounds of old western movie soundtracks—whistling, a trumpet, and those group-chant “Ho!”s—but here they’re given so much love they can’t help but gush with warmth. And each of these elements delivers a hook that’s individually addicting and collectively cohesive. The lyrics mirror the progression of a fairytale relationship, from verse one’s nonsensical puppy-love rhymes to verse two’s more meaningful shared experiences to the bridge’s final, reflective unveiling of the “you know when I knew” moment. Yeah, it’s cheesy, but you can’t help but fall for it.

And just as in duets by the groups listed above, the real show stealer is the female performance. Her boozy, drawled mezzo-soprano and her loving, charming delivery are really what make this jam so damn lovable.

Listen and love.

Music Monday: “What A Wonderful Man” by My Morning Jacket

Some of my favorite songs end too soon. Just as my audio appetite gets whet and hungry for more, the instruments crescendo and cease. Case in point: this downbeat-heavy, slightly sloppy jamout gem.

The drumtaps and piano open simply enough, securing the hook that’s quickly bolstered by jangling guitars and Jim Jones’ signature wail. Then bursts of note-bending, nearly-late guitar solo rage and short-and-sweet-and-sky-high falsetto choruses shriek and a final guitar chord fades to silence.

Here’s to you, MLKJ—a wonderful man, a song that ended too soon.

"On to the Next One" directed by Sam Brown

Sometimes the coolest visual effects are the simplest ones. For example, my favorite part of this music video for Jay-Z’s next single is the black cables undulating across a white background—so simple yet so mesmerizing. The entire video is full of simple effects like this that still create a beautiful masterpiece: wind blowing, paint dripping, smoke billowing, black on white, white on black, still shots, singular motions.

The song itself is simply about how Jay-Z claims to have left the competition in the dust, and with this video, director Sam Brown achieves the same amongst rap videos in particular and many music videos in general. As Rolling Stone said, it’s “high-concept video art.” I’m not sure what all the symbols are, but reducing them to singular, simple visuals sure grabs my eye.

Music Monday: “Horchata” by Vampire Weekend

This opening track on Contra, which drops in stores tomorrow, is just what I’ve been waiting for from VW and what every fan wants from a sophomore album—the sound we’ve come to know and love, along with some fresh experimentation and instrumental wing-stretching.

Fortunately so for us and decidedly so for them, the group is still blending electronics with symphonics, all with their signature frenzied-yet-well-calculated-and-controlled syncopation, while adding more worldly influences to their ever-varied mix. Pitchfork said it best: “Contra works because of its juxtapositions—of natural sounds to processed ones; of manners to tantrums; of party rhythms to deadpan poetry; of black music to white music.” Just like their first album (and perhaps the intended effect of their phonic melting pot), there’s something on Contra for everyone.

Might I also recommend these tracks: “Run,” “Cousins” and “Giving Up The Gun.”

If, like me, you can’t get enough of these kids, you can listen to the entire Contra album here, buy it on iTunes today here, discover when they’re touring near you here, see the video for “Cousins” here, and watch them on MTV Unplugged here.

Music Monday: “When My Time Comes” by Dawes

It’s ambitious as hell to release a debut album of slow country, but on North Hills, these guys keep you humming along without a single yawn. And, as this song will tell you, they can pick up the pace when the time comes, seamlessly jumping from its almost spoken-word, stumbling-over-themselves verses into a jaw-dropping—on our part and theirs—melody in the chorus. If that’s not enough to get you hooked (I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t instantly love these guys), check their lyricism that’s as introspective as it is creative, their wailing harmonies, and their sweet cover of “With a Little Help from My Friends.”

With the new year upon us, I hope this jam sends your 2010 exploding into space as brightly as it is mine. Anyone else feel their time coming this year?

Music Monday: “Sleepyhead” by Passion Pit

Ever since hearing this jam in the new Palm Pixi commercial, I haven’t been able to get to get it out of my head. It does the spot well, creating the dizzying, fast-paced frenzy of the digital world we live in, while keeping it fun and upbeat amidst all the fuss. Even better than the spot, though is the band’s music video — full of spinning cubes, keyboards and lights and bent on some repetitive yet captivating well-timed stop motion.

But better than both videos is the song itself: electro-pop at its finest, rife with pulsating kick drum, double handclaps, ambient chimes and a killer synth riff. As far as vocals, Paste said it best: “Passion Pit’s falsetto vocals sound like Bon Iver being sampled and sped up by Kanye West.”

Jam it! It’ll rock your skinny jeans off at 1:21, and again at 2:18.